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"Had I but known," Dinah said, under her breath.
From the balcony of her hotel room she looked out on a view lovely enough to stir a less romantic heart than hers. The Mediterranean was as calm as a country pond. Separated from her hotel only by the palm-fringed boulevard of the Avenue de Paris, it reflected the splendor of an eastern sunset. The scarlet and gold and copper of the sky were softened in the reflection, which shimmered dreamily as the slow breakers slid in to shore.
The girl leaned her elbows on the balcony rail, planted her chin firmly on her hands, and went on muttering to herself.
"If I had known, I wouldn't have been so excited about coming. That sunset is practically an insult. What's the point of watching a sunset like that by yourself? They say Beirut is the swingingest city east of Suez...."
The sunset spread itself like a peacock's tail, luminous and brilliant, across the horizon. Against the tapestry of light the silhouettes of palms stood out, black and bizarre. Finally Dinah's face mellowed, like the fading light, and her grumble died into silence. She was given to soliloquizing. Talking to yourself, as other, less sensitive, people called it. The sign of a weak mind.
Dinah grinned sheepishly. The trouble, dear Horatio, was not in the city, but in herself. Beirut was a marvelous place: romantic, picturesque, colorful. Presumably it also swang, or swung, whatever the past tense of that verb might be. But a respectable young woman, traveling alone, the daughter of a minister, touring the Lands of the Bible underparental auspices, and with parental funds, could not reasonably expect to do much swinging.
Dinah looked wistfully to her right, where the lamplit Avenue de Paris swung in an arc along the shore. Somewhere down there was the downtown area of Beirut: the glamorous hotels, the famous restaurants and night clubs. She had hoped to stay at the Phoenicia, or one of the other new hotels. From what she had heard, a lot of interesting activities went on there. Unfortunately, her father had read the same guidebooks. He had read all the guidebooks. He was a fanatical armchair traveler, in the saddest sense; for the chair was a wheelchair, to which he had been confined for almost ten years.
Dinah's mobile face changed, her long, expressive mouth drooping poignantly. So much for the Hotel Phoenicia. This trip was not for her; it was for her father. He considered sentimentality an unfair burden on the people he lived with, so his voice had been matter-of-fact when he discussed the trip. But she knew him too well to miss the undertones.
"Seeing something long desired through another's eyes is hardly satisfactory," he said, looking, not at her, but at the travel folders he held in his hands. "That consideration should not influence you in the slightest. I thought perhaps ..."
The folders were printed in bright colors, with names out of an antique past: the Holy Land, Jerusalem, Damascus; the Walls of Jericho, "the rose-red city half as old as time." The thin, blue-veined hands held the circulars spread out, like a deck of cards.
"Of course I'm dying to go," Dinah had heard herself saying. "'Haven't you had years in which to indoctrinate me? I'm as crazy as you are."
He had dropped the travel folders on his desk and looked up, his keen brown eyes searching. Then he grinned. The wide, cheeky smile sat incongruously on his ascetic features, but it was an expression of that side of her father she loved best.
"Fine," he said briskly. "And don't bother sending me postcards, will you? Can't abide the things."
"I won't keep a diary, either," she promised; and her own grin was a reflection of his.
The sunset was fading now into a haze of soft lavender. Dinah propped her elbows more firmly on the rail. The tour through the region her father had made his particular study would never have occurred if the miracle hadn't happened first. Bless Frau Schmidt, or whatever her name was -- Frau something, without doubt, for it was the happy consequence of her marital status that had given Dinah the chance so many young singers dreamed of. Not that the local opera house of Hildesberg was Salzburg, or the Met; but it was a beginning, a real professional job. And it could be a stepping-stone to more exciting places.
Dinah knew she was lucky to have the chance. There weren't that many openings, and the competition was keen. If her voice teacher hadn't happened to know the director; if she hadn't sung for Herr Braun when he was last in the States...He had remembered her when Frau Schmidt discovered, right in the mid le of the season, that she was about to become a mother. Luckily, motherhood as a cause for retirement had advantages over more abrupt accidents. It would be another month before Frau Schmidt reached such proportions that she couldn't bow during curtain calls.
Hildesberg, Germany ... Dinah wished, not for the first time, that her German were better. She had the trained ear that a singer must have, and could render Wagner and Weber and The Magic Flute with every umlaut in place; but her vocabulary was limited. The gods of the Nibelungenlied do not come naturally into a conversation. She smiled to herself, recalling the librettos she knew.
"Zu Hilfe! Zu Hilfe! Sonst bin ich verloren! Der listigen Schlange zum Opfer erkoren!"The opening tenor recitative in her favorite Mozart opera had always struck her as particularly hilarious; now, in the veiling darkness of her balcony, she forgot herself and gave it a little too much Angst. The Dead Sea Cipher. Copyright © by Elizabeth Peters. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.